Buddhist Sharing Movement (KBSM) released a report on the North Korean food crisis based on interviews with North Korean migrants in China. Summarizing results from five phases of interviews conducted between September 1997 and May 1998, the KBSM study reported that “the [cumulative] mortality rate over the last 2 years and 9 months (August 1995-April 1998) has reached 27.0 percent...The mortality rate for 1996 was at 8.86 percent [88.6 per 1,000] and for 1997, 19.60 percent [196 per 1,000].” The survey also found that the birth rate to sample families was 0.93 percent [9.3 per 1,000] in 1996 and 0.86 percent [8.6 per 1,000] in 1997. “We have determined,” the report stated, “that the worst famine in human history is now transpiring in North Korea” (Korean Buddhist Sharing Movement, 1998).

Concerned by these accounts but unable to assess the reliability of their findings, a U.S. nongovernmental organization (NGO) active in North Korean humanitarian relief, Mercy Corps International, invited the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health to undertake its own study of North Korean migrants in China. In the past five years, significant numbers of North Koreans have been moving across the Chinese border in search of food for themselves and their families. It is estimated that between 50,000 and 150,000 North Koreans are staying temporarily in China, principally in Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, which is home to nearly 1 million Korean-Chinese. Bound by ties of kinship and ethnicity, Korean-Chinese families along the border and throughout the prefecture have tried to help their relatives with food, shelter, cash, and clothing.


The Hopkins study had two specific research objectives, one substantive and the other methodological. The first was to develop a demographic profile of North Korean migrants in order to understand better the phenomenon of migration in the context of food crisis. The second objective was to explore the use of indirect estimation techniques in calculating mortality and other vital rates. In March 1998, we distributed a self-administered questionnaire to approximately 200 local aid networks in Yanbian, asking them about their assistance to North Koreans. Of the 102 networks that responded, just over half (n=57) reported that they assisted North Korean migrants. From the list of 57 active sites, we drew a stratified sample of 18 sites, selecting at least one site from each of the eight counties of Yanbian Prefecture: Yanji, Hunchun, Yungjung, Tumen, Hwaryong, Ando, Wangchung, and Donwha. The border counties of Yanji, Hunchun, Yungjung, Tumen, and Hwaryong received multiple random picks proportional to the number of active sites in the county.

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